RWU Marks 20th Anniversary of Celebrating Great Works of Literature

With a focus on this year’s selection, “The Red Badge of Courage,” the Birss Memorial Program brings the campus community together to explore important novels, poetry and essays

By Jill Rodrigues '05
Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage

BRISTOL, R.I. – Great works of literature and poetry have an enduring power to profoundly enrich our lives and illuminate a deeper understanding of human nature and our place in the world. 

This year, Roger Williams University celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Professor John Howard Birss, Jr. Memorial Program, which examines some of the most important works of literature throughout history, the authors, and the historical context in which it was written. 

“All great works of literature deal with the desire to understand human consciousness – the search to connect and to feel less alone,” said Adam Braver, a member of the Birss Memorial Program committee. “The Birss program is important to the university today, and will still be critical 20 years later, because it provides the space to have a discussion in the tradition of the liberal arts about a work of literature through discourse, reading groups as well as a visual exhibition.”

Through this year’s selected text – The Red Badge of Courage – the campus community is invited to read and open a dialogue on Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel through a series of events, including a literature course, an exhibition at the University Library, a reading group discussion, and a keynote lecture presented by a scholar of the author’s works.

Photo of Stephen Crane
Stephen Crane worked as a war correspondent in Greece, and in Cuba during the Spanish-American war.

“Celebrating its 125th anniversary, Stephen Crane's classic novel is known for its early modernist portrayal of the Civil War, and its psychological perspectives on the mythmaking of heroism and cowardice,” according to the Birss Memorial Program committee. “Still, in many respects, The Red Badge of Courage goes beyond history, suggesting relevance over a century later, by speaking to issues of our day, specifically, a country that is visibly divided along ideological lines, which, for many, seem irreconcilable. In revisiting The Red Badge of Courage, one can't help but be prompted to ask, ‘Is our country broken?’ ”

The annual program was established by Robert Blais ’70, in honor of longtime university Professor John Howard Birss, Jr., a scholar of Herman Melville, whose most famous work was the inaugural book selection. Since 2001, the program has held a campus-wide discussion on epic novels such as Moby Dick and The Grapes of Wrath, works of poetry like Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and plenty of controversial classics including Native Son and Slaughterhouse-Five. Notable highlights from the program’s history includes an all-night reading by faculty and students of Moby Dick inside the University Library and a livestreamed dialogue with eminent science fiction novelist Ray Bradbury.

Throughout the years, the Birss Memorial Program has expanded significantly, adding the literature course and a collaboration with Bristol’s Rogers Free Library, which presents a satellite exhibition and holds reading group discussions. Most recently, the program has made available two fellowships open to students in the Honors Program. As Birss Fellows, Jillian Damiani and Emma Phipps worked with a faculty member and library archivist gaining hands-on experience in learning how to research an important work of literature and create a literary exhibition.

As part of that experience, Damiani and Phipps traveled with Professor Adam Braver to Columbia University in New York City to conduct archival research and identify the pieces to create RWU’s exhibit. Damiani and Phipps also served as docents to share their knowledge of Crane and his work with guests during the exhibition opening. 

“I have contemplated doing an internship with archival work because this experience was so interesting for me, specifically to be able to hold pieces of literary history in my own hands,” said Damiani, who double majors in English literature and creative writing. “I think experiential work is often the most effective for college students because it resembles more closely a real workplace.”

As a psychology major with a minor in American sign language, Phipps was excited to get more exposure to literature. “This broadened my understanding of history and the kind of work it takes to write a book. Seeing the history, not only behind the author of a work, but also behind the work itself, helps you better grasp why the author created the work and how it was created.”

Join the Celebration of Crane

Each year the Birss Memorial Program celebrates a significant or culturally impactful book, inviting the campus community and greater community to read and open a dialogue about an important work of literature or poetry. The events are free and open to the public, including:

Marvel comic cover of The Red Badge of Courage
Stan Lee illustrated this Marvel comic version of "The Red Badge of Courage' on display in the exhibit.

Exhibition at the University Library
Open daily during library hours through March 31
University Library

Two exhibits celebrate the work of Stephen Crane and the 20th anniversary of the Birss Memorial Program. View artifacts on display from a national archive of Stephen Crane’s works, including manuscript pages, book cover illustrations and graphic novels, correspondence from the author’s friends and publishers, Civil War daguerreotypes courtesy of the Library of Congress, and Civil War artifacts provided by the Bristol Historical Society & Preservation Society.

The exhibit will be on display during library hours through March 31. A satellite exhibit is on display at Rogers Free Library, 525 Hope St., Bristol, through March 8.

Reading Group Discussion
Wednesday, February 26
3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Rogers Free Library, 525 Hope St., Bristol

Two sessions of a community-wide discussion of the book, hosted by Bristol’s public library.

Keynote Lecture – Fiction, Life, and The Red Badge of Courage
Thursday, March 5
4:30 p.m.
University Library – Mary Tefft White Cultural Center

Christopher Benfey is the author of five highly regarded books about the American Gilded Age including The Double Life of Stephen Crane (1992) and A Summer of Hummingbirds. His most recent book, If: The Untold Story of Kipling's American Years, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2019. Also a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, Benfey is a Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Humanities fellow. He is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.

For more information visit the library’s Research Guide.

To see selected images and letters from the exhibition, please view the exhibition gallery.

Co-sponsored by the Professor John Howard Birss Memorial Fund and the Mary Tefft White Endowment.